Thrift vs. Theft: What Are You Justifying to Save Money?

By Julie Ann

Have you ever been to a restaurant with a friend and watched him stuff his pockets with ketchup packets so he wouldn’t have to buy his own bottle? Maybe you’ve known a girl that buys a fancy dress, tucks the tag, wears it once and returns it. Once I even read about a woman who took discarded faux flowers out of the cemetery garbage bin for use in her craft projects (only slightly better than actually stealing the flowers off the graves).

To one person, these may seem like good ways to save money, but to another, they are petty thievery. There is a difference between thrift and theft but sometimes it’s hard to see where that line falls. Let’s look at a few examples and try to find where thrift crosses the line and becomes theft.

First, the ketchup packets, sugar, salt, sporks and napkins. Sure they’re out for the taking… for use with the food you just purchased! Do you think the restaurant intends you to stock up for tomorrow’s breakfast too? While the average cost (a few cents) of those sugar and ketchups packets, crackers and straws doesn’t seem like much, consider multiplying that by the hundreds of other people who also take additional condiments. The restaurant must recoup those supply costs and will eventually pass that price on to you. If you’re a loyal customer, you might be able to justify a few extra napkins to blow your nose with later, but seeing the condiment bar as a free miniature shopping spree is just wrong. Say you never leave the restaurant with a stash of napkins? Well, do you leave a bunch unused on the table? Restaurants can’t collect unused sporks and straws and put them back for the next guy. If you’re taking more than you need and leaving it on the table, it’s just as much a loss to the restaurant as sticking it in your pocket.

It’s the stuff sitcoms are made of: Girl buys fancy dress, hides the tags, wears it once and returns it for a full refund. Peruse Internet forums on this issue and you’ll find that most people agree that doing this will result in “bad karma” but many still admit that they’ve done this – especially when money was tight like during college. Given the very lenient return policies of some stores, it’s a very tempting gray area. Even our scrupulous editor admits to having “borrowed” a video camera for 29 days before returning it to a big electronics chain in time to get a full refund, a scam made famous by filmmakers of “My Date with Drew.”

On the flipside, if you buy a pair of shoes and wear them once or twice only to discover they hurt your feet, you shouldn’t lose any sleep over returning them (especially if the store or brand offers a 100 percent satisfaction guarantee). Your intent when buying the shoes was to keep them, and that’s what counts. When you walk into the store knowing that you’ll be back, you may not be breaking any laws, but you are certainly taking advantage of the store and breaking the golden rule.

There are also things that people do to have money that aren’t just ethically questionable, but they are flat-out illegal. Swapping price tags, placing more expensive items into boxes for cheaper items, or lying to the self-checkout about the products you are buying could all hand you a “go directly to jail” card. Just because you are buying something doesn’t give you the license to cheat the store.

And it’s not just at stores and restaurants where we try to save money but taking advantage of the system. Have you ever stolen a pocket full of paper clips from work? What about using the office copy machine for those flyers you printed to help you find your missing kitten? Yup, that’s all stealing from your employer too. You may think that stealing a pen or two will save you a few bucks and your employer won’t notice it. But did you know that employee theft costs U.S. companies billions (yes, with a ‘B’) each year? And once again, those costs are passed on to you, the consumer.

If you are feeling a little guilty right now (I know I am!) because you’ve got napkins and straws stashed in your glove box or are stealing from your employer by reading this article at work, stop, repent, and remember that there’s grace for you. However, always be aware that those little things that seem on the surface to be great money savers might actually be unethical or even illegal. And in the end, is it really worth saving a couple of cents and being in violation of one of the Ten Commandants (remember, “Thou shall not steal”)?  There are plenty of morally acceptable and perfectly legal ways to save tons of money, so why slip into those gray areas? On your journey of thrift, stay way clear of the border of theft.

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